HAVING RE-INVENTED themselves as a dark, pop-opera quartet, former trip-hoppers Archive are currently de rigueur for your average French music fan. With a Sartre-like flair for universal themes, the London-based outfit's latest album Take My Head gets existential about love. Over here in France, it has already shifted over 40,000 units, prompting key Gallic magazine Les Inrockuptibles to feature the band on two consecutive covers. Naturally, they had the most prestigious slot on La Route Du Rock's Saturday-night bill.
Taking the stage as darkness fell on the castle grounds which played host to the festival, they began with "You Make Me Feel". The song segued between a manic synth figure and a section in which singer Suzanne Wooder led two backing-vocalists in a Baroque-sounding vocal canon. The juxtaposition of eras and styles conspired with the setting to magical effect, and as a crescent moon appeared above the castle, you couldn't help feeling a bit Mystic Meg.
Wooder conducted her dialogue with the audience in perfect French, while keyboard-player Darius Keeler kept a low profile stage-right. Keeler is the band's songwriting linchpin and an extremely gifted composer.
As "Big Fish" ably demonstrated, he likes to shaft the sonic Zeitgeist, but the hymnal quality of his organ counterpoint on "Take My Head" suggested that Johann Sebastian Bach was as likely a source of inspiration as any superstar DJ.
This classical sensibility - which was also evident in the suspensions which featured in Keeler's string arrangements - made for some symphonic-sounding, occasionally affecting pop music.
Later highlights included "Headspace", in which Wooder added some acid- jazz flute to Keeler's deliciously drowsy Fender Rhodes, and "The Pain Get Worse", in which the aforementioned backing vocalists proved they could handle the kind of gospel-inspired oomph which fired Pink Floyd's "Great Gig In The Sky". From time to time, Wooder would throw odd dance shapes, possibly the result of a fleeting interest in mime. Marcel Marceau still has a lot to answer for.
In stark contrast to your average field of Glastonbury reprobates, the audience was orderly throughout. No moshing. No flying bottles of piss. No acid-fuelled gibberish and no bare-breasted women hoisted up on shoulders. If you can imagine such a thing, their response to Archive was politely ecstatic. It was a bit like being at the Proms.
Perhaps their overall performance was a little slick for some people's tastes, but there were moments during the evening when Archive were both innovative and intoxicating enough to suggest that they will be amongst 21st-century-pop's front-runners.
Portishead-lite ? Au contraire.